Let’s hear it for ineptitude.
That’s one of the unexpected lessons of President Trump’s tenure as he nears the halfway mark of his term.
The president hasn’t been tamed; he’s every bit as autocratic and disruptive as when he took office in January 2017. But he’s been restrained by courts from California to New York. He was rebuked by voters in the midterm election. And now he faces a new obstacle, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues.
Not long ago, the never-Trump half of the nation was gripped by fear of an authoritarian takeover; books with titles like “Fascism: A Warning” became bestsellers. But as Trump begins what may be the second half of a one-term presidency, democracy looks newly resilient.
I recently asked Harvard University’s Steven Levitsky for a report card. In “How Democracies Die,” another bestseller, Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warned that Trumpism looked much like the one-man populism that turned Hungary and Turkey into autocracies.
Levitsky says he still worries about the long-term corrosion of democratic norms but his worst fears haven’t been realized. “American democracy isn’t dying,” he told me. “We’re not turning into Hungary.”
First, the institutional bulwarks of democracy have held.
Federal courts have stopped many of the Trump administration’s most imperious actions, including attempts to ban Muslims and separate migrant children from their parents at the southern border. California and other states have fought back hard to protect the environment. A special counsel has indicted or convicted 33 individuals so far, including Trump’s former national security advisor and his former campaign chairman.
Levitsky gives the news media credit too for fact-checking a president who relentlessly distorts the truth. Perhaps as a result, a Washington Post poll last month found that most Americans, including most Republicans, don’t believe Trump’s biggest whoppers, such as his claim that Democrats want “open borders.”
Second, Trump has proved remarkably inept at governing.
He begins his third year without a permanent chief of staff, Defense secretary, attorney general or Interior secretary. Top White House jobs have turned over at a record rate (83%, according to the Brookings Institution). That’s not normal.
The president’s chaotic style has gotten in his way. Republicans in Congress complain that they can’t make a deal with the White House (to reopen the federal government, for example) and know it will stick. Foreign leaders know that commitments from administration officials can be upended by a tweet.
“Trump’s incompetence is a good thing for democracy,” Levitsky said. “He has authoritarian inclinations, but he hasn’t been able to put them into practice.”
Finally, the midterm election put a massive new obstacle in Trump’s way: a Democratic House led by the implacable Pelosi.
“In countries where authoritarians take over … the opposition tends to be weak,” Levitsky noted. “We have a very strong opposition. That’s important.”
The Democrats can block Trump’s remaining legislative agenda, from building a wall on the border to getting approval for the renegotiated NAFTA trade deal. House committees will investigate every facet of Trump’s business empire — leading off on Feb. 7 with Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who may prove the greatest threat to a president since John Dean blew the whistle on Richard Nixon in the 1973 Watergate hearings.
Even though Trump has denied it, the Democrats’ sweep of 40 House seats — their largest gain since Watergate — was a stinging backlash from voters. It showed that the president hasn’t expanded his support; he’s shrunk it. Other Republicans, especially those up for reelection in two years, noticed.
A handful of GOP senators called for a compromise to end the government shutdown without giving Trump the $5.7 billion he is demanding to build a wall. The mini-rebellion died quickly — but it was a sign that some Republicans are wavering.
Still, Levitsky argues, “The institution that has performed worst in the last two years is the Republican Party. There was a wing committed to democratic norms, people like John McCain and Jeff Flake. That wing is gone.”
None of this means the crisis of American democracy is over or that the next two years will be placid. The rest of the Trump era will still be chaotic, just in a different way.
“Instead of an authoritarian takeover, we have a different problem: total dysfunction,” Levitsky said. “Divided government only works if the two parties achieve at least a minimum of cooperation. It won’t function if the two parties can’t even talk to each other, which is what we’re seeing now.”
But the specter of an autocratic president running roughshod over democratic institutions has ebbed. That’s worth at least two cheers.
Doyle McManus, whose column has appeared on the op-ed page of The Times since 2009, will appear on Page A2 every Sunday.